World Cup dips deep into Amazon forests

World Cup dips deep into Amazon forests

World Cup dips deep into Amazon forests

The most challenging aspect of building a World Cup soccer stadium in the middle of the Amazon is debatable. Some might say it is figuring out how to get oversize cranes and hundreds of tons of stainless steel and concrete into a city surrounded by a rain forest that stretches for about 2.1 million square miles. Others might mention the need to put most of those materials together before the rainy season floods the entire construction site. Then, of course, there are those who might point to the need to install the special chairs.

Yes, the chairs. It may seem like a small concern - at least compared with the whole everything-being-flooded possibility - but one of the less obvious issues that comes with building a stadium in the jungle is what the searing equatorial sunlight here can do to plastic. The seats are supposed to be varying shades of yellow and orange. “But if we don’t use the right kind of material,” said Miguel Capobiango Neto, the coordinator of the construction project, “then the sun will melt the paint away. The seats will just turn white.”

Neto sighed. “The Brazilian press compares us a lot to other stadium constructions,” he said through an interpreter. “There is no comparison. There is nothing like this.” The World Cup has never staged games in a rain forest, much less in the middle of the Amazon. But that is the plan for next summer, an ambition that invites plenty of hurdles.

What other major stadium project had to drain an “unwelcome tributary of the French River,” as Neto put it, that ran through its foundation? What other builder has to spend multiple days on each joint that is soldered because the stifling humidity can cause steel to buckle? What other job has to accommodate one of the most ecologically sensitive regions in the world?

Then, of course, there are the concerns about how many more millions of dollars will be spent on cost overruns, not to mention what will happen to the stadium once the four World Cup games scheduled to be played here next year are completed. (One recent proposal suggested the stadium could be converted to a prison.)

But despite having as many as 1,400 employees, the project has been bogged down by the delays, cost increases and design changes that come with seemingly every significant piece of Brazilian infrastructure. In a polite but pointed statement, Hubert Nienhoff, the chief executive of gmp-Architekten, the German firm that designed the stadium, said that though the “precise planning and implementation that Germans are credited with” might be respected in Brazil, they are “not always compatible with the existing pragmatic day-to-day business” in the country.

His point was unmistakable. Left unsaid was this: The progress in Manaus was so sluggish that at one point late last year, Jerome Valcke, the secretary-general of soccer’s governing body, FIFA, said it was possible that games would not be played in the city if the stadium’s deadlines were not met.

That threat, according to local officials, prompted a construction surge, and with it a ballooning budget. The stadium was supposed to cost about 500 million reais (about $227 million) and be completed by July; now it will cost at least 600 million reais and is scheduled to be finished by December, Neto said.

As of the end of August, about 78 per cent of the stadium was complete, according to FIFA, making the new target date at least theoretically feasible. “The rainy season starts at the end of November,” Neto said. “Because of that, we must really rush to have the ceiling ready by then.” He was not joking; from December through March, this city generally receives as much as 45 inches of rain, almost twice as much as what Johannesburg, which hosted games during the 2010 World Cup, receives all year.

Of course, there are some who believe the four World Cup games set for Manaus should not be played here anyway. Critics of the stadium in Manaus, as well as the similar projects in Brasilia and in Cuiaba, note the lack of top-division soccer teams in those cities and call the expensive stadiums “white elephants.”

Organizers challenge that thinking, saying there are a number of options for post-World Cup events and highlighting the stadium’s design as being intentionally multipurpose. Environmentally friendly features like harvesting rainwater to use in the stadium’s toilets make the stadium sustainable, the designers said, and concerts and other exhibitions are among the possibilities raised for future use. Local officials are also quick to note the exposure the World Cup will bring to the Amazon region, as Manaus is often used by tourists solely as a starting (or returning) point for forays into the jungle.

While certainly isolated, Manaus is hardly antiquated; the city has a population of about 2 million and a growing economy that includes electronics, chemical and oil companies. The Free Economic Zone of Manaus is also a significant industrial hub.

From a helicopter, this Amazonian city is a parade of stunning sights. Out in the river, there is the famous Meeting of the Waters, the phenomenon where the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimoes rub up against each other but do not mix. Along the banks, jungle lodges are carved snug against the forest. In the port, ships hauling sugar and fish and bananas and watermelons weave in and out of the docks.

“I think people would be surprised by what’s here and what the people here do,” said Harold M Wright, the director of the international relations office at the University of the State of Amazonas. “Having the stadium is important to this city. There’s also a lot more passion for football here than people realize.”

Vanessa Silva, 23, is involved with one of the fan clubs of Nacional. She joined the raucous cheers last month during a 5-2 victory over Genus, another Amazonian team, and said that most of her contemporaries supported the building of the stadium. “Filling the stadium - I think it’s a big dream, but I think it can happen,” she said. “We care about our teams here. We have a lot of younger fans following Nacional now, and this can be their stadium. This can be something in Manaus that we know as ours.”

First, though, the stadium will have its moment in the spotlight. Assuming the construction is completed in December, the World Cup draw will take place shortly thereafter, and the locals will finally know which teams and fans will travel to Manaus. Once here, the visitors will find a sharp juxtaposition. The stadium, which is designed to look like an indigenous straw basket, will surely gleam while the city around it offers a mix of areas: the upscale Ponta Negra, for example, contrasted with a slew of gritty slums.

The glamour of Rio de Janeiro and the bustle of São Paulo are about 1,700 miles to the south. This is the Amazon. There are jungle lodges and electrical storms in this city. But if the flooding is avoided - and the special chairs arrive on time - there will be soccer here next summer, too.

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